Satisfying The Modern Racegoer: A Rant

I’m not an occasional racegoer, writes Tony Keenan. In 2015, I went to 35 race meetings – 14 at Leopardstown, 9 at the Curragh, three at Galway, two at Naas and Killarney, one each at Down Royal, Dundalk, Fairyhouse, Gowran Park and Navan. And that was a down year for me compared with the last decade so I feel well qualified to answer the question: what does the modern racegoer want?

I don’t go racing to get a betting edge; if I wanted that I would stay at home. I go racing because I like live sport and the ‘meeting’ part of the races; I enjoy shouting one home, discussing racing with other punters, having a drink, a cup of coffee or something to eat. I’m going to go racing regularly this year again as the positives outweigh the negatives but there are aspects of the raceday experience that frustrate me.

Attending the last two days of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival was the spur for this article.  It’s the track I attended most last year and I rate it about the best in Ireland but there were a few things that weren’t right last week and I wasn’t alone in this belief judging by the reaction online. Chief among them was ticket prices. The course were charging €30 per day and got plenty of blowback about this; I realise this is a relative pittance compared to UK prices where it was £50 for premier admission on King George and £30 is a pretty standard fee into good Saturday fixtures like Cheltenham on Trials Day and the Clarence House Chase at Ascot this month. By Irish ticket prices, €30 is relatively expensive, that figure only really reached on Derby Day and a few of the big events at Galway. For instance, it’s €20 into the Irish Champion Hurdle, €15 for the Thyestes and the same for Punchestown Sundays.

Enough nit-picking about prices though. Ten euro here or there isn’t the main issue and Irish racegoers should count themselves lucky when they think of their UK counterparts. There are more important things that need to be sorted.

  1. Food and Drink

I have no problem paying high-end prices for a drink at the races; I do have a massive problem with piss-poor service in delivery of said drinks. Some tracks get it right, Galway standing out; they always have plenty of staff that are polite and efficient. Wags could point out that’s because it’s more a drinking festival than a racing one but the point is they get the job done.

The Curragh, where I’ve been a member for years, is the worst and it’s not even close. I’ve had a drink in about every bar on the course and there have been as many bad experiences as good ones. The staff are either woefully inexperienced and know nothing about the running of a bar or are gruff and more interested in picking out selections for their Lucky 15s than serving punters.

All the same comments apply to food service and one area where tracks constantly fall down is staffing for the big days; they simply do not seem to get that they will have more customers and the systems that work fine on an average day are now stressed to breaking point. Again, the Curragh fall down here – I’ve been in the self-service restaurant where they’ve run out of potatoes after the first race.

The quality of food at racetracks is a constant irritant to anyone who has even a passing interest in good quality cuisine. Fast food, and generally bad fast food, is the norm and while some argue that you get no better at a concert or a GAA match that doesn’t mean racing shouldn’t aspire to a higher standard. In any case a race meeting is an entirely different event; instead of the action taking place over a prolonged period it happens in short bursts with ample time for standing around in between.

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It’s not impossible to have semi-decent food at a racetrack – Leopardstown did a good line in tapas for a while a few summers back but it seemed not to catch on – and the same thoughts apply to coffee. We live in a coffee culture now where people are more discerning and serving them up coloured hot water just won’t cut it.

One final thing on staff: could they please be nicer to older customers? I’ve seen many instances of rudeness to older racegoers (men, really) when they are the very people who have kept tracks going in terms of attendance over the years. All the clichés apply here – ‘it’s their only social outlet’, etc. – but there’s truth in them and they are an important group at the track that need to be catered for.

 

  1. Viewing

Every track in the land should have a big screen, no ifs or buts and that’s regardless of whether there are two meetings on that day. The action can take place more than half a mile away from the stands and binoculars are becoming more fashion throwback than racecourse essential so punters need to see. And the feed to the screen should be in time with the live action; some tracks have seen delays of as many as four or five seconds lately which defeats the purpose.

An even better solution than a big screen would be the use of hanging TV sets in the stand as seen at a track like Navan. They take some capital outlay but provide a crisp picture, superior to the big screen. Banks of TVs should also be used efficiently within the stands and enclosures, showing all the action from other tracks and sporting events. Racegoers are sports fans and don’t just turn off their interests as they come through the gate; expecting them to locate the one TV in the corner of a bar on the second floor that is showing the action they want to see isn’t right.

 

  1. Technology

A small request would be for racecourses to provide banks of mobile phone chargers at a point or two within the course; not plugs now, actual different chargers for various phones. I’ve seen this at AT&T Park in San Francisco and it works really well [the clue may be in the name there! Ed.].

The main issue at any track however is Wi-Fi provision and the sooner it gets sorted the better. Bookmakers, journalists and track workers are already using it and people have just come to expect it at venues now. It’s particularly important at some rural tracks where phone coverage can be patchy.

The counter-argument to this will obviously come from the on-course bookmakers. They would argue that racecourses would be simply playing into the hands of offshore layers that don’t give back to the game. But it’s too late for this; everyone is doing it anyway. I have some sympathy for on-course bookies, out in all weathers and often facing tepid trade, but they’re akin to horse and carriage taxi drivers in the first days of the motor car. The show has simply left town here and they did enjoy the good times for quite a while with their excessive margins. Anyway, this is not a debate on the morality of bookmaker contributions to racing but what the modern racegoer wants.

 

  1. Parking and Freedom of Movement

Parking at racetracks should be free; that’s a pointed comment intended for Galway which is the only course in Ireland that charges customers to leave their car. It should also be in the same parish as the track; yes Leopardstown, that’s you with your overflow carpark halfway down the M5o.

While I acknowledge the need tracks have to extract top dollar from corporate clients, one irritant over the Christmas Festival at Leopardstown was that large portions of the track were closed off to the normal racegoer. UK racegoers may be well used to this but in Ireland there has always been a more egalitarian feel to the tracks; no special enclosures, everyone pays the same price in, people can go where they like within reason. This has long been one of the great attractions of Irish racecourses – I’ve watched many a race beside big owners and trainers like Michael O’Leary and Willie Mullins – and to get rid of this would be wrong.

 

  1. Toblerone Women

People who have never been racing in Ireland will be reading this title and wonder what is he talking about; those who have will be smiling or perhaps grimacing. Regular Irish racegoers will be familiar with these harpies invading your personal space in the carparks before and after meetings, whether it is trying to fence you a racecard or ram a bag of rotten fruit down your throat. If a racegoer wants to buy a racecard surely within the track is the place to get it; that way the money will actually go to the course.

That’s not even to mention the ubiquitous Toblerones, more prevalent at racetracks than any airport duty free; they may be on sale for a fraction of the airport cost but on your own head be it if you buy as you’ll be pestered to buy more from now to eternity. There’s an argument that the Toblerone women provide ‘colour’ at race meetings but in truth they’re a nuisance and racecourses would do themselves and their customers a favour by getting rid of these leeches.

Tony Keenan

What are your main bugbears at the track, Irish or UK? Leave a comment and let us know.

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